Dhakai Handi serves authentic spicy dishes from the other side of Bengal
When Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer without any specialised knowledge of India, drew a line dividing Bengal in 1947, he divided a people united by climate, language and culture. In a land where gastronomy is worshipped, the boundary stuck out like an unkind cut, depriving West Bengal the culinary style that makes Bangladeshi food, with its typical flavours and spices — a unique cousin of West Bengal cuisine.
It is this near-vacuum that Dhakai Handi, a small takeaway tucked away in Dumdum, is striving to fulfil. And it has begun with aplomb as we found out under lockdown. The Puran Dhaka style Mutton Tehari, which is a signature item of Dhaka, scores with its unique aroma and the tenderness of mutton. The grains of rice, called chinigura in Bangladesh, are a bit shorter but lends a delicate flavour to the item. Incidentally, Dhakai Handi makes all its rice dishes including kachhi biryani with this kind of rice.
The tehari consists of a mix of marinated mutton pieces, moong dal and chinigura rice cooked in dum style. It is served as one pot meal and the blast of flavour that hits you when you open the lid can prepare even a semi-full stomach for gluttony. But what can trigger symphony of flavours and tastes on the palate are the Chattagramer Shiley Bata Murgi (chicken), Chingri (Prawn) and Lotey fish. Called bhorta (no similarity with Indian bhartas in taste and texture, please) and famous as a signature item of Chittagong, these are quite unlike anything that is available in the city.
The chicken, prawn or fish are ground between stones (traditional shil-nora in Bengali kitchens) along with the carefully added amount of garlic and red chilli. The result is a burst of taste that is initially, and predictably, hot, but which unlocks the taste buds just as a dramatic allegro prepares the ears for the rest of the symphony that follows.
These pastes or bhortas are a direct lift from Dhaka where one can find restaurants that offer 18 to 20 types of pastes (locally called bata), which they have with steaming rice and mustard oil. It requires a lion’s heart and great determination to take on the batas. But for more ordinary mortals, the trick is to take a little of the paste and mix it with a relatively greater quantity of rice. Even if one is not particularly receptive to chillies, the batas can be savoured with even a running nose.
One of the highest sold items of Dhakai Handi is Egg Rezala, which has a light gravy full of aroma. “Bangladeshis use the same spices that we use here. But it’s the style of cooking — how much to add and at what stage — that brings out a distinctive taste in Dhakai cuisine,” says Arijit Saha, the 35-year-old owner of the eatery that is two and a half years old.
The eatery offers more than 15 items that are signature dishes of Dhaka. Arijit swears by the cooking style that he ensures is a replica of Bangladesh. The delicacies of Dhakai Handi are products of nostalgia and practice. Arijit’s mother, an incurable Bangal (a word used for those with roots in Bangladesh), has curated most of the items.
On a day-to-day basis the head chef, who hails from Ramgotithana area of Noakhali district, ensures that all the items emerging out of the kitchen adheres to the Bangladeshi cooking style fully. “We are not into Bengali food. We are into Bangal cuisine,” avers Arijit.
“We are planning a garden restaurant that would be open on weekends. We would take advance bookings. Located in a small cosy garden, it would be a unique experiment in the city. Work is 80 per cent over,” he adds.